Hipstamatics and Melancholy Objects
The last 30 years has seen a glut of philosophical writing about photography emanate from the art industry, or, to twist Eisenhower’s phrase, the Art-Industrial Complex. Every issue of every high brow art magazine one picks up will have at least one essay by an art theory lecturer writing about photography, and the nature of the photographic enterprise. Some are insightful, but most are simply verbose. Now and again one of them will make up a new word, patting themselves on the back while foolishly believing they have added a new idea; some are indecipherable and get bogged down in the murky depths of Wittgenstein or Derrida, their turgid and not terribly original concepts understood only by a tiny select few. Most love to quote Roland Barthes and his mundane ramblings on photography, ramblings that reveal more about his obsession with his own eventual demise and his slightly alarming devotion to his mother, than they do about the nature of this thing that has so radically altered humanity in a little over 150 years.
They especially like his word that he made up: punctum. They will toss it in here and there in their essays, and probably do so at dinner parties too (although I have never had the misfortune of having to sup with any of these elegant operators on the lower slopes of postmodern theory). And secretly and fervently they hope that one of the words they themselves have made up will be added to this great theoretical canon that is understood by so few and ignored by so many.
You see, there is really only one thinker who has nailed down this thing called photography, and she did it in such an emphatic way that, even though she drew on what others before her had written, comparatively little of great substance has been added since, because, frankly, there’s not a hell of a lot left to say.
So when I get asked to write something on cell phone photography, and specifically, Hipstamatic images, I know that all I have to do is go back to Susan Sontag’s On Photography and I will find more than enough threads in what she wrote: threads that suggest similar threads, threads that can now be followed further, technology now being so much more advanced than when she published (1979), and threads that now find themselves in the vast virtual worlds of Facebook, Google Earth and the like.
Before we start wondering what Sontag would say about something like Facebook if she were alive today, it would be a good idea to briefly explain the chapter of Sontag’s book that I will be drawing on most heavily, the chapter dealing with Surrealism and photography, entitled Melancholy Objects.
Surrealism was the most revolutionary and idealistic of all art movements of the 20th Century, which is not surprising as it morphed out of Dada, the most reactionary and angry (and influential) of them all. Indeed, it seems to me that the ripples created by Dada were no longer discernable in the world at large only when the surviving members of the great Punk band, The Clash, began appearing in fashion magazines a few years back wearing Armani suits and Gucci loafers. Fortunately Joe Strummer was dead by then.
Amongst Surrealism’s aims, which were grandiose to say the least, was a “takeover of the Modern sensibility.” This came about through an erroneous Freudian belief that the unconscious produced images that were “timeless as well as universal,” and that if their art could tap into that well of images they would produce a discourse in a language of symbols that would not only be universally understood, but also force a rupture of class, morality and politics, a reality that would supersede and overthrow our own mundane visible reality, and our middle class morality (the Surrealists were all from the middle and upper-middle classes themselves). In short, they were, to quote Robert Hughes, “the last group of artists naïve enough to believe that art could change the world.” Of course, they failed, leaving behind a mere “perfume of revolt” and left us on the threshold of a “…liberty on which, in principle, nobody acts.” (1)
Hughes, however, makes the mistake of ignoring photography completely in his analysis of 20th Century art, and this is surprising for so insightful a man, for it is photography that has succeeded in so completely infiltrating our lives and our society, and in so doing has engineered a subtle (but ultimately hostile) takeover of our sensibilities in ways that Andre Breton and the other Surrealists would have found spectacular and triumphant, for photography is, as Sontag suggests, the most surreal of all art forms.
Before you begin imagining ‘surreal’ photographs like Pink Floyd album covers, let me point out that this is not what Sontag is referring to here. Quite to the contrary, looking back, says Sonatag, it is work like this that looks least surreal:
“A Surrealist manipulation or theatricalization of the real is unnecessary, if not actually redundant. Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision. The less doctored, the less patently crafted, the more naïve - the more authoritative the photograph was likely to be.”
That last sentence is not relevant here but is key to what we will find when we begin to discuss Hipstamatic images. What is relevant here is that photography has created a duplicate world (in effect, a virtual world, but for 160 years in analogue form), heightened in drama and intensity, infiltrating our consciousness, and in doing so has fulfilled this aim of the Surrealists.
Not only this, but the very act of photographing is in itself an act closely following the Surrealist programme, or modus operandi:
“Surrealism has always courted accidents, welcomed the uninvited, flattered disorderly presences. What could be more surreal than an object that virtually produces itself, and with a minimum of effort? An object whose beauty, fantastic disclosures, emotional weight are likely to be further enhanced by any accident that might befall it?”
The Surrealists were fascinated by art that ‘made itself’. Sentences would be torn up, tossed on the ground, and re-arranged randomly to make poetry. Artists would deprive themselves of sleep for long periods in order to be able to operate on auto-pilot, with as little conscious decision making as possible guiding their actions.
“Unlike the fine-art objects of pre-democratic eras, photographs don’t seem deeply beholden to the intentions of an artist. Rather, they owe their existence to the loose co-operation (quasi-magical, quasi-accidental) between photographer and subject – mediated by an ever simpler and more automated machine, which is tireless and which, even when capricious, can produce a result which is interesting…”
Looking back through nearly 2 centuries of photography, it is what is “…most local, ethnic, class-bound and dated…moments of lost time, vanished customs…” that appears to us, now, as the most surreal. “The Surrealists misunderstood what was most brutally moving, irrational, inassimilable, mysterious – time itself,” and it is this, says Sontag, that lends photography such, at times, unbearable pathos, and prompted Barthes to make up words like punctum (that element within the photograph which punctures, or wounds, the heart of the viewer), without realising that it is something inherent in the very nature of any photographic image that has aged, regardless of whether his mother is the subject or not. More often than not, a photograph taken of a person yesterday simply has no punctum, unless its subject got hit by a taxi last night and is now, like all those hundreds of thousands of Cambodians that stare out at us from the little i.d. pictures taken by Polpot henchmen, gone.
It is not only the nature of the photograph that is surreal, argues Sontag, but also how we photograph: what we choose to photograph. Surrealism was always a bourgeois disaffection with the bourgeoisie itself, says Sontag.
“As an aesthetics that yearns to be a politics, Surrealism opts for the underdog, for the rights of a disestablished or unofficial reality… Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and lower depths. Documentarists…prefer the latter. For more than a century, photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence – with a spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them.”
“Travelling between the degraded and glamorous realities is part of the very momentum of the photographic enterprise…” says Sontag, and although neither poverty nor glamour are surreal in and of themselves, what is surreal to the middle class photographers and viewers is the bridging and/or rupturing of this social class-distance that the photograph appears to engender.
What is interesting here (and this has been picked up by a number of media theorists) is that, because the middle classes have usually been the ones doing the photographing, it is they who have been photographed the least, for after all, their own world is the least exotic, the least dangerous, to them. And by dangerous I don’t strictly mean the danger of wandering into Thokoza, or a favela in Rio at night with a camera. The notion that photography could be dangerous to the psyche, to one’s mental-health, (yeah, yeah… spare me the smirks, you fuckers trapped in the myth of the insane genius) was something that Diane Arbus, the flâneur of the marginalised, the maimed and the hidden, first voiced, and is written on at length by Sontag.
The wealthy upper classes have, on the other hand, acidulously and meticulously managed their visual image, ever since the advent of photography. Indeed, at the start it was only they who could afford to be photographed. The photographers of the wealthy are no different to the Court painters during Europe’s era of monarchy, obediently rendering a flattering portrait of their subjects, very few being able to rival Goya in his ability to puncture this veneer while still keeping the subjects happy. But whereas before all they had to contend with outside of this was the paparazzi, cell-phone cameras in the hands of almost every middle-class person have turned the rarefied lives of the upper classes into a living hell in this regard.
The poor, on the other hand, simply obey and cooperate with the photographer. Very seldom do they refuse to be photographed, as is the case with the middle class. Try stopping people arbitrarily on the street in London and ask if you can take their picture. Nine out of ten will say no, despite the fact that the average Londoner will be photographed on average more than 500 times every day by surveillance cameras.
Sontag devotes the rest of the Chapter to discussing the work of August Sander, who spent the years between the wars compiling a vast, vast catalogue of images of German people from all walks of life, in as democratic a style as he could manage. And yet, even here, the rich are able to manage their image: usually, Sontag points out, they are photographed in their own homes, at ease, while the working class are merely defined by whatever work they do.
This almost scientific cataloguing of specimens was also a Surrealist venture, Joseph Cornell being its primary practitioner, outdone in more recent years by Candy Jernigan. Whereas these two artists collected actual specimens, found objects, photographers like Sander, Walker Evans and a host of others subsequent merely use their cameras. In fact, anyone who puts together a body of photographs in the fine art realm ends up nowadays cataloguing specimens, which together form a kind of visual synecdoche of the overall subject itself. Sometimes, it must be said, a rather bland synecdoche, but that is the subject of another essay, involving the New German Realism and our august friend Mr. Sander.
So what has changed since Susan Sontag wrote all this? I have never seen any of her observations adequately refuted. What she wrote about photography I have only briefly touched upon, but it all still sounds profoundly plausible. What has changed is technology, the availability and spread of technology, and the art industry itself.
With the advent of cellphone cameras, our lives have become saturated with images. No longer is it the trained photographer who documents the world, but we ourselves: the middle classes in developed countries. There is no longer any need for a newspaper to fervently hope that there is a photographer on the scene when bombs explode on a train. Those caught up in these events will all be armed with cameras, and their images are quickly made accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
The event is linked with the photograph, says Sontag in an earlier essay. “Any event … should be allowed to complete itself – so that something else can be brought into the world: the photograph,” and in so doing, join the “image world [that] bids to outlast us all.” Photographing, as she sees it, is essentially an act of non-intervention, and when we are all armed with cameras, no-one intervenes. The famous anecdote from the 80’s of Peter Magubane putting his camera back in his bag and successfully intervening to prevent a group of thugs from necklacing a woman seems, from our perspective now, like something from a different generation. A similar situation today may well see such a person restrained by a mob armed with cellphones, itching to have a smash hit on YouTube.
At the same time, the sheer quantity of photographs that now exists in cyberspace, due to the proliferation of cell-phone cameras, is something Sontag could not possibly have imagined in the Seventies. Everyone on Facebook has moments from their lives posted for hundreds to see, and these billions of photographs form the largest image bank of the middle classes in developed and developing nations ever compiled. The only image bank, in fact, middle classes private-lives having been hitherto considered unworthy of being photographed by serious photographers, and the photos the middle class took of themselves hitherto remaining in the private realm.
One of the most fascinating South African photographers, to me, has always been a Cape Town photographer called Graham Abbott. Abbott has produced a prodigious amount of photographs of his own life. He is the only photographer I know who literally cannot go anywhere without his camera. In 2 days in New York recently he took 14000 images. He has photographed almost every single person who has ever attended any of the annual Mother City Queer parties, and has photographed every single event in his busy social life. Back when we were students, he rolled his car onto its back and was filming his bewildered friends clambering out before the wheels had even stopped spinning. He has made perfunctory attempts to produce bodies of work in a more arty mould, mainly nudes, but it is really these images from his everyday life, and the beautiful ‘decisive moment’ images from his early career, that form the most fascinating body of work, making Abbott the ultimate photographic voyeur of his world and of a large segment of middle and upper-middle class Cape Town.
But now I see Abbotts everywhere, and while the real Abbott’s whole enterprise seemed charmingly free of narcissism, the same cannot be said of these others. Many people no longer live in the moment, but experience it, via their and other peoples cameras, as something whose ultimate aim is to exist on Facebook, and seem constantly to be engineering moments in order to document them, Facebook them and in so doing validate them. They are overtly conscious of how they look, and “Don’t forget to tag me!” is a common cry. “Everything exists to end in a photograph,” wrote Sontag. Today, it seems, everything exists in order to end on Facebook.
The difference here, however, is that nothing actually exists in cyberspace except binary code. Nobody actually prints the images they put on Facebook. They go straight on almost the minute they are taken. Abbott’s images, and all the images from our pre-digital lives, exist as physical objects (in Abbott’s case a pile of neg sleeves three metres high). There was always a certain pleasure to be had in sitting down with a friend, or a new lover, and hauling out old photo albums to show them pictures from our past. This is something that our lives are steadily being deprived of. All our images of ourselves now exist on Facebook. Chances are your new lover has already seen them all. Indeed, chances are those images has helped form (and inform) his or her desire for you in the first place. But you will never be sure.
Ultimately, however, the most lamentable aspect of this situation is the fact that there is no longer any pleasure to be derived in this act of sharing our images. We don’t know who has been looking at them, unless they choose to indicate so, and we derive no pleasure from their looking. “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability,” wrote Sontag. And it is for this reason that we derived not so much pleasure, perhaps, but rather empathy, when we shared our images face to face with our friends and loved ones. But now, the amusing anecdotes we had to go along with certain photos are redundant, the tenderness or sadness that would enter our voices when showing other photos, unheard. A little icon of a thumbs-up is a pithy replacement for the complex range of emotions these moments used to confer upon us.
Given Sontag’s very plausible contention that photographic images, and the act of taking photographic images, gives people “an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, [and also helps] people take possession of a space that is insecure,” (she sites the phenomena of hordes of picture-taking tourists as evidence), one can only but wonder what sort of rupture would take place in our lives were all these virtual images to suddenly disappear, what kind of gap would now exist in our lives between us now, and the days of actual film? The photographer Marc Shoul threw up his hands in horror when another photographer told him he was thinking of destroying all his old negatives because they had all now been scanned.
Nevertheless, cell-phone cameras and the glut of images they have given rise to, are what we now have, and of all cell-phone images, it is the Hipstamatic application that most accurately meets the requirements of the Surrealist manifesto.
The Hipstamatic is an application for i-Phones which is based on the look and feel of old, film-era point-and-shoot cameras that used mainly 120 roll-film and produced square images, a digital version of the Holga, Diana and Lomography crazes that swept through the professional photography world some years back. Referring back to Sontag, if any cameras could be termed “capricious” it was these. Cheap plastic lenses that would flare in arty ways when hit by the sun, leaky film backs, and a manual winding mechanism that allowed for the overlapping of frames, all added up to a camera whose inherent property was that of the photographic mistake. Now, on the Hipstamatic application you can get all of these without the hassle, and get, obviously, instant results. You have a choice of eight different lenses and ten different old films, all based on old stuff that was around for these Holga-type cameras, as well as a choice of various types of flash. A further feature of this camera app is that you can shake the phone and the app will randomly select a combination of film and lens, each time different, and unpredictable. Furthermore, you can set the viewfinder to give randomly imprecise framing, so that what you frame is never quite what you get: the ultimate Surrealist tool now in the hands of the (photographically) naïve. Even in his grave Breton must have a half a hard-on.
If all this adds up to these images being more “authoritative” as Sontag suggested, it is not a situation that has come into being solely due to the naïve, amateurish nature of these camera-phones and their users. Professional commercial photography has become, after more than a decade of Photoshop, so manipulated, doctored and riddled with photographic lies that anyone with half a brain now finds the images taken by amateurs on their phones - candid, unposed, with an air of innocence, and unmediated - to be the only thing resembling the nebulous notion of believable photographic truth. These images serve as an antidote (on both a technical level and in the realm of content) to the glamorous advertising and fashion images we are swamped with, and this was bound to happen. The pendulum always swings, as it had already begun to do when the professional photographic world began to embrace the Diana and the Holga. But then again, this is something that Sontag had also written about: one of the driving forces of photography being its hovering back and forth between the bi-polar worlds of degradation and upper-class glamour. Many photographers (she gives as examples Richard Avedon, Bill Brandt, Steichen and Cartier-Bresson) made this back and forth transition, but none abandoned the world of artifice as represented by the glamour and fashion industries so spectacularly and completely as Diane Arbus, and her death by suicide has made her “fuck Vogue, fuck fashion” stance all the more believable, much as the voices of Kurt Cobain scream and Nick Drake whisper to us from beyond the grave, more insistent, believable and authoritative now than when they were living: “I really mean it, man.”
That cell-phone images (in general) are authoritative is something that has been noticed in the developing world in the struggle of their citizens to rid themselves of decades-long dictatorships. The days are limited when the African state can send in its uniformed thugs to arbitrarily crush dissent. The state was simply unlucky that there happened to be a professional photographer and a TV crew on hand during the murder of Andries Tetane, but in years to come they can hope for no such reversal of fortune. The gradual ‘informal redistribution of wealth’ coupled with the fact that contract customers regularly get free phone upgrades and dispense with their old ones, will ensure that many urban poor South Africans will have, in the not too distant future, phones with very adequate video and picture-taking capabilities, to document the actions of our increasingly thuggish and brutal police-force.
But to return to the Hipstamatic: if it is the ageing of a photograph that makes it more and more surreal with the passing of each year, and in so doing, turns it into art (“Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art,”) then the Hipstamatic can be said to accelerate and telescope this process. Many if not all of the lens and filmsettings speak of a bygone era, with their sometimes-leaky light blotches, warm saturated colour tones that recall faded prints and slides, and uneven borders. But to re-iterate, this began happening in the late nineties with the resurgence of the Holga family of film cameras, and it happened just as the dominant style in art photography of that decade, the narrative tableaux as exemplified by photographers like Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, was beginning to lose its impetus. Rather than open the floodgates and let in the barbarians armed with their Holgas and Dianas, the art industry turned to Germany and found there a school of photography fostered by Berndt and Hilla Becher, and having its roots in the work of August Sander and Walker Evans. But the rise to prominence of the deadpan aesthetic and the New German Realism is a topic outside the scope of this essay, and has much to do with photography’s uneasy relationship with modernism’s underlying essence as outlined by Jeff Wall: that it was a reductivist programme fixated on the myth of the avant-garde.
This was a brilliant strategy on behalf of the gate-keepers of the art world, and along with the requirement that has gradually taken hold over the last 40 years or so: that you must have a degree in Fine Art (preferably an MFA) to participate, it now meant that the dominant style for the first decade of the 21st Century has been a highly exclusive one. The requirements to join include expensive medium to large format camera equipment, massive prints at prodigious prices and concomitantly enormous framing costs. “Scale as a substitute for invention, Chihuahuas masquerading as Great Danes,” as the critic Vicky Goldberg put it. (2)
At the same time, there began to be an increasing insistence that the work of photographers deal with the issues the art industry had deemed important: identity and gender issues (relating often to power relationships in society) gleaned from the writings of a few dead French post-modern theorists like Foucault, Derrida, and Baudrillard.
Foucault’s work deconstructed and critiqued the power of the state, and how that power is maintained and abetted by such things as the design of prisons, the functioning of mental asylums, and surveillance by cameras. But anyone who still thinks it is governments running the world should watch Sydney Lumet’s 1976 film, Network (more relevant now than ever before), and pay careful attention to the marvellous and hilarious monologue of Mr. Jensen, the Chairman of the Board.
And so the thing which threatens our planet and our existence the most, unfettered global capitalism itself, never really gets critiqued in the art industry, now so tied to the umbilical chord of this economic system: art as investment, corporate funding for biennales, and huge art prizes funded by the corporate world. "Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage ..." said the feminist writer Adrienne Rich.
Don’t go banking, then, on these cell phone and Hipstamatic images battering down the doors of the upper echelons of the fine art industry. The mere fact that their means of production is so accessible to everyone is anathema to this industry, which thrives on rarity, exclusivity and stratification of artists along dubious, agenda-driven lines. But be assured: they will proliferate at a prodigious rate all over the world, and become, for the first time ever, an art that is democratic and global, in part (but not quite) what Walt Whitman had wished American art and poetry to become, what the Surrealists had, in their way, wanted (once again also only in part), and what Sontag had hoped would some day be reigned in. She worried in her closing chapter about photographs stripping us of our ability to contemplate reality and “distinguish between images and things, between copies and originals… Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and making it obsolete.” She worried too that because they are an essentially unlimited resource, and proliferate at such an alarming rate, they will never run out and in so doing spare us, finally, their negative after-effects, like, say, oil will.
“If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well.”
Her closing statement here brings to mind a Leonard Cohen line, from The Future: “The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold, and it’s overturned the order…” well, maybe not “of the soul,” in this case here, but something… definitely something. We won’t see from where we stand here, now. It was 150 years before someone like Sontag came along and really saw.
All quotes from On Photography, Susan Sontag; New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. 1977, except:
(1): The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981
(2): Light Matters, Vikki Goldberg; New York: Aperture Foundation, 2005